Think back to the late 1980s, when American civic life seemed so frail. So many voices urged us to spend little, aim lower, and expect less from our neighbors and ourselves.
In those years, Bob Sexton chose another course. While others prepared to abandon ship, Bob and his band of colleagues boldly set sail. They charted ways to change Kentucky’s schools—big strategies, to strengthen all our children. They searched out allies to help those changes happen—thousands of Kentucky citizens, hundreds of national supporters.
Over three decades, Bob proved that our civic life was ready for new growth. He cultivated leaders, nurtured understanding, and harvested results, so that today, the trees Bob planted bloom all around us. Nationally, Kentucky fourth graders rank ninth in reading and our eighth graders rank sixteenth. Kentucky colleges produced 9,000 more graduates in 2010 than in 2000. With the new Common Core standards, Kentucky has made a fresh commitment to higher student achievement, and we did it sooner and with greater confidence than any other state in the union.
Results like those are half of Bob Sexton’s legacy. Our engagement as citizens is the other half. Individually and together, we are the people that Bob taught, shaped, and empowered to live out his vision. Loving him and the work he began, we can and will continue building better schools, stronger communities, and larger lives for our next generation.Having shared that, I adore blogging because I don't have to stop with the short version of a thought, so here's a second take on the same thinking, with both the personal and historical tucked in.
I was in high school during Watergate, the first oil crisis, stagflation and the fall of Saigon.
While I was in college, President Carter diagnosed malaise, Proposition 13 began its steady destruction of California’s public services, and President Reagan took office with promises to abolish the federal education department.
The year I graduated, Alistair MacIntyre offered his memorable prescription for a dying civilization:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community in which civility and the moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.The spirit of that age really seemed focused on accepting decline and finding tiny ways to get by in a time when great building was not possible.
That was 1981—my 1981.
I share all that to so you know why I marvel at Bob Sexton's approach to that same 1981:
The members of the original committee had limited faith that their recommendations would be implemented. As a result, they decided that Kentucky’s political and educational leadership should be emboldened to take daring steps for change in Kentucky higher education. Most important, their work led to a second conclusion, a conviction that, as Ed Prichard said, “Education is a seamless web running from the earliest years through the highest levels of educational achievement.” They were convinced that Kentucky education, from the years of earliest childhood through high school and vocational education, needed radical improvement.Similarly, the view from 1990 still impresses me:
Thousands of citizens, all over Kentucky, have stepped forward. A quiet revolution has moved through communities. When educational decisions are made, the public is asserting its right to be heard. Kentuckians have made the connection between improved schools and improved jobs –between improved schools and improved lives. In hundreds of communities, our citizens have decided to do something about their own schools; they have joined on the path to a larger life.The big picture in 2004 is, to my eyes, clearly historic in scale:
These volunteers have shown that commitment, focus, and inclusiveness can produce outstanding results. They shared a deep faith in the power of high-quality education. They trusted in the possibility of progress, even against discouraging conditions. They could envision a better way and knew they and their fellow citizens could reach it. They believed they owned a big share of government and felt personally responsible for making sure it served them and other people well. They were doers, not complainers, who kept their eyes on the prize. Like General Washington, they kept their army in the field.While MacIntyre and my favorite college mentors argued that it was time for despair and disengagement, Bob Sexton staked out the opposite claim, marshaled his evidence and made his case. He strengthened our shared institutions, expanded civic engagement, and accomplished large things through democratic institutions. He changed our state and inspired new effort across our nation, at a time when many claimed such things were no longer in reach.
These decades, Bob’s decades, have been a time for new planting and fresh growth, bold plans and great building. The doomsayers in the academy and on the air waves were wrong, and he was right. Even as we know that there is still huge work to be done, let us celebrate Bob Sexton's vision, his effort, and his successful demonstration that we as citizens can indeed make important new things happen for our children and our communities.
Sources: The MacIntyre quote is from After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), page 245. The next two passages are from the second edition of the Prichard Committee's The Path to a Larger Life (University Press of Kentucky 1990), page xii and xvi, respectively. The last is from Robert F. Sexton, Mobilizing Citizens for Better Schools (Teachers College Press, 2004), page 113.